The case for a global parliamentary assembly

Lord Archer of Sandwell

Report from the Federal Union AGM

The guest speaker for the afternoon session was Lord Archer of Sandwell QC, who had served a distinguished parliamentary career and had just been elected honorary president of Federal Union at the preceding AGM.

He started with the word “parliament”. A parliament is a talking shop. Not long ago, to be dismissed as a talking shop was an insult, but now we are learning that it is a good idea to talk and an even better idea to listen.

Parliaments were established as a place to talk. And, since the second world war, states have been good at falling over one another’s feet and talking might help prevent matters from getting worse.

The experience of parliaments, though, is that they depend on continuity. If people drop in for meetings but then go away to other jobs, they are much less likely to be successful. For example, it is hard to see how much debate the G20 summit will be able to have in the scheduled 4 hours of meetings.

Furthermore, in addition to the continuity, parliamentary work needs to be prepared. There needs to be a carefully worked out agenda before things reach the final discussions. The G20 lack this, too.

To be successful, an assembly needs to take on a life of its own. The members of the assembly need to get to know each other, which will help them resolve disputes before they even reach the floor of the assembly itself.

Which are the issues that should be dealt with by a global parliamentary assembly? Which problems are properly to be considered as global problems? This issue is in itself a matter of controversy. Matters of the economy seem to have a global dimension, but there will be genuine disagreement over others.

Another question is how the delegates to a global assembly should be chosen. At present, delegates to international assemblies, such as the UN General Assembly, are usually nominated by the member states. The European Parliament represents a break with this procedure, in that its members are elected directly by the people. The MEPs thereby become a bridge between the people’s doorsteps and European decisions. You become a much better delegate if you know what the people are really thinking. The election of the MEPs is therefore, for the first time, a link between the grassroots and the international level.

What would be the effects of a new parliament? A parliament shares out power, and the powerless and the poor would find that they are in the majority. It would remove many of the reasons for grudges and complaints, a step towards the stable world desired by the UN Charter. It was necessary to address stability as well as justice in thinking about global institutions.

How to decide who should be the delegates? Should there be elections, on some kind of geographical basis? Early socialists embraced syndicalism, where representatives would be chosen not on the basis of where they lived but of how they earned their living. Similar divisions might be made on the basis of religion or ideology.

There are also many other issues about how a global parliamentary assembly might be set up. These should be taken one step at a time, with nothing irreversible done until we are sure that, in the overall context, it is the right thing to do.

In answers to questions, Lord Archer noted that the European Parliament had started with nominated national MPs before moving to direct elections later on. This was a sensible route and maybe a global parliament should start in the same way. It could not go on for too long on this basis, though, because it would not lead to a cohesive grouping of parliamentarians, upon which every assembly depended.

Suggestions were made that institutions other than the UN, such as the WTO, might be a suitable starting place for a global parliamentary assembly. It might even be convened on the strength of a private initiative. Lord Archer suggested that any initiative needed to have both budget and credibility, and he was not sure how far an initiative other than that of the UN would be able to bring both to bear.

The final question was about how to relate to the countries that did not wish to take part. Henry Usborne had suggested that those countries that wished to proceed should do so, and not allow themselves to be held back by those that did not. As the group became more visibly successful, those other countries would wish to join in later.

More information

The future agenda and role of the European Parliament

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